UTG INTERVIEW: Oakes & Smith

oakesandsmith

Robert Oakes and Katherine Smith met by chance in the summer of 2007 and as they connected immediately on many levels, the two brought their creative strengths together to form a project that has been progressing ever since. The two just released their brand new album, First Flight, in November of 2013, a beautiful folk effort with lush, multi-instrumental arrangements and stunning melodies in their vocal duets.

We had the chance to speak with the duo about their initial connection, their newest release, and what they have in store for 2014, so read through the jump and get acquainted with Oakes & Smith.

It seems that you both were more or less born into music, which for most, often with any profession, led to it becoming a major part of your lives. Has there ever been a point where you felt that you were doing this because it was in your blood? Did you ever want to do something else or wish that you had?

Robert Oakes: My father’s mother sang and played old-timey songs on the piano and my father’s uncle was a vaudeville performer in New York City-or so the story goes. My father was a singer and drummer and consummate showman, and my brother and I followed in his footsteps, playing in bands (including his) from the time we were little kids. The strange thing is, the musical presence in my family is a bit mysterious. None of us have had a whole lot of formal training. Mostly, it’s been something that has just come to us or has just always been there. So, yes, I have often felt that sense that I do this because it’s just a part of who I am, of who we are as a family. And I really don’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t doing music in some way. That said, yes, I have felt the pull to do other things. I have also wanted to be a writer or a teacher, and actually, I have done a bit of both of those things, too.

Katherine Smith: Music has always been part of the atmosphere I grew up in. I can remember being a little kid and being brought to rehearsals that my parents’ local singing group held before they had a big show. My father always sang around the house and music was often playing on the radio during our day-to-day life. I have a large extended family that is very closely knit, and most of them are musically inclined or great appreciators of music. Our holidays and get-togethers often involve instruments and songs being shared, sung around campfires, pianos or simply in one another’s company. To this day, every time we have a family reunion, among the food tables and outdoor games, a stage is put up with sound equipment and microphones for family members to get up and play and sing throughout the day’s festivities. I think it’s safe to say that music is in my blood, and that I knew it would always be prominent in my life whether I made it my profession or not. I feel very fortunate to be embarking on a career that makes it a focal point. I do have many other interests, and though music is the main focus of my time and energy, I am actively painting and have been getting my feet wet with teaching, too.

At what point did you realize that you really wanted to follow that path and dedicate yourself to music?

Robert: I think, for me, it happened about two years in to college. I had been studying and learning and moving toward getting a degree and all that, but always, there was this gnawing feeling that there was something else I should be doing with my time and energy. Something was calling me. I remember, during those years, I would feel these intense flashes of inspiration and end up spending hours at the piano writing music, or taking long walks and dreaming up ideas for lyrics. More and more, a conflict was growing in me, whether to stay the course and complete my degree or to leave school and focus on my creative work. Finally, I decided to quit school and record my first album of original songs. At the time, I felt I was making a major choice for my life’s path, that I was choosing the life of an artist in no uncertain terms and devoting myself to the call of my creativity. Eventually, I did complete my degree, but it was never a clear and narrow path from that point on. Multiple times, I left school to follow my creative impulses or to have some other experience that I couldn’t find in college.

Katherine: My creative path has never been a clear-cut, easy-to-follow course for me. I have many creative outlets that have, in the past, competed for my full attention. I did always know that I wanted to be an artist when I grew-up, but what type was unclear. Just as music was a huge presence in my life growing-up, so was visual art and theater. It wasn’t until my later high school years leading into college that I began writing down some of my deeper thoughts and created some poetry, never thinking that, someday, I would meet someone like Robert who would help me craft those ideas into song compositions. I suppose I was always seeking a way to marry stage performance, visual art and music together. In a big way, being part of this duo exercises all of those creative muscles often. From making visuals that accompany each song, performing the music live on a stage, and composing new music with Robert, I often feel satisfied, like my whole creative self is being given the outlet it deserves.

Are their any artists or acts in particular that you feel have inspired your sound and style that you’ve adopted over the years?

Robert: There are many artists that have inspired me over the years. A few of the biggest for me are Genesis, Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins, Yes, Jon Anderson, Van Morrison, Paul Simon, Kate Bush, Cat Stevens, Joe Jackson, Walt Whitman, Rilke, Rumi, Hafiz, Hesse, Neruda, Thoreau, Wordsworth, Mary Oliver, Tolkien. The list goes on, really.

Katherine: I would say that the list of musicians that I listen to and who have impacted my life continues to grow as I do. I am an active listener of many genres and musical time periods. I am always interested in experiencing new sounds and messages. That being said, I was a huge fan of the voices of Broadway shows and old jazz standards when I was a kid. I also loved powerful rock voices such as David Bowie, Robert Plant and Freddie Mercury. It was a pretty typical scene to see my friends and me driving down the road, blasting Queen in the car and singing/yelling all the words as we went along. In more recent years, I have been taking in more of the folk greats including Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell. Their songwriting and clear powerful voices stir up much inspiration.

And the area in which you two live is a major influence as well, right? How would you say your current locale affects your writing and the mood that goes into it?

We live in a renovated barn in a town of just a few hundred people in the Berkshires, the westernmost county in Massachusetts. This area is very quiet and filled with natural beauty and lots of cultural offerings like museums and music, theater, art and dance festivals in the summertime. This close kinship between art and nature that we feel all around us here definitely finds its way into our music. There is a sense of letting things follow their natural flow, rather than trying to force them into a particular mold or design. There is a sense of looking inward or reaching down into the roots of things, rather than looking outward to what the world wants or what others are doing. And there is a stillness or peace, the kind of pace you find when you walk far enough out into the woods for the manmade world to fall away, and you hear that soft breeze blowing up the valley through tree limbs that have been growing ever so slowly over years and years and years. We try to sing that presence into our songs as best we can.

When you two began collaborating initially, what was it that made you know that this was something to stick with? What do you feel each of you brings to the table to round out your sound?

The very first thing we collaborated on was a music video concept for a song that appeared on Robert’s 2009 album, Heart Broken Open. We sat and talked up ideas for how the video could go, and then Kate drew out the storyboard. Really, it was more than a storyboard. She created these beautiful little drawings that really conveyed the atmosphere of the story. That was the first moment we realized that there was a spark here. We immediately saw that we shared a very similar artistic sensibility and that what we were doing was the art equivalent of finishing each other’s sentences. It was so exciting and inspiring.

Eventually, we began singing together, and again, we found that our voices blended perfectly with ease. Together, our voices created a new sound that was more than the sum of its parts. This isn’t something you find every day. People sing together all the time, but it’s rare to find such chemistry.

Following that, we tried our hand at writing collaboratively, and there, again, we found connection. Songs began to come, we each contributed lyrics or melody, or Kate had the start of a song, which Robert helped her to finish, or Robert had a piece of music with no lyrics, and words that Kate had already written fit them perfectly. Kate also began to create images to go with the songs, to help express them visually, as well as lyrically and musically.

We each bring special strengths that help to shape the overall sound. Kate has a strong and penetrating voice that really shines, while Robert’s voice provides a deeper, subtler underscore. Robert also brings ability on a number of different instruments and years of experience with songwriting and arranging music. Kate comes from a background in which stage performance reigned supreme, so she brings a strong and solid stage presence, while Robert comes at it more from the point of view of writer, so he brings extra attention to the message and meaning behind the music and to how it is expressed in words. With Kate’s background in painting and drawing, she offers an added dimension by creating visual elements for the act. Of course, we both overlap in many ways, but it is in our individual strengths that we lift each other up.

Do you feel that your relationship is an advantage for this project or is there any kind of hindrance that makes it a different or more difficult process than it would otherwise?

Our relationship is definitely an advantage. There is a trust between us and a real sense that we are in this together with both feet. This is a musical act that we are trying to grow, yes, but it is also a relationship and a life together that we are building. This raises the stakes, perhaps, but the promise and rewards are also that much greater.

So your new album, First Flight, is still freshly released. How would you describe its sound and themes to a potential listener?

This is an acoustic folk or folk-rock album, but it gives nods to some other styles of music that have influenced us-new age, progressive rock, jazz, musical theater, among others. Unlike our 2011 School Session EP, which was pretty sparse in its instrumentation, First Flight features lush arrangements for a full band, including piano, upright bass, drums, acoustic and electric guitar, banjo, mandolin, cello, violin and viola. Front and center throughout are our two voices singing in close harmony. The overall mood of the album is pastoral and meditative, introspective with a touch of melancholy. But there is also a strong feeling of optimism

There are a number of themes woven through the album. Most emphasized are themes of love and relationship seen in a positive light, of following a call to create a life in alignment with your heart and soul, of pursuing dreams and visions, of a return to innocence and remembering a sense of childlike wonder, of experiencing the peace and beauty of nature, of a willingness to take a leap of faith because love and destiny compel you to do it.

What does the title and artwork represent in relation to the subject matter on the release?

The title of the album comes from the song “First Flight.” In the song, there’s an image of a bird that’s taught to fly by getting tossed from the nest. There’s a sense here that it’s only when we throw ourselves into life and take a chance on something or someone we love that we can really feel alive and follow our fate. There is also a faith that, if we do throw ourselves in, even though we don’t ever feel quite ready to fly, we’ll develop the skills or get the guidance and resources we need to achieve liftoff.

This has been a guiding spirit for us throughout this entire project and really, throughout our entire time together. There has been this sense of fate, a feeling that we were meant to meet and create something together, but that, to do so, we’d have to take some chances, following a call that pulls us from our comfort zones and into the unknown. We have also been inspired by this connection to remember the pure and simple things that have always sparked feelings of love, hope and faith within us from the time we were kids.

The wings on the cover signify flight, of course. They also serve as a reminder that it takes two wings to fly, bringing it all back to relationship and collaboration. The image could be seen as both bird wings or angel wings, so, there is also a nod to nature as a guiding presence, as well as to a spiritual guide that may also be present, though unseen.

There are a lot of musicians and instruments incorporated throughout the album and the arrangements are fantastic. Was this a collaborative effort at all in terms of how it’s written and structured or were you two solely in control of that?

Thank you. It started with songs that Robert had written some many years ago, or songs that Kate and Robert wrote together more recently, as well as a couple traditional tunes we love to sing. Starting off, it was just us singing to Robert’s guitar or piano. When it came time to begin thinking about making the album, Robert created arrangements for drums, bass, piano, synths, etc, recording demos at our home studio. This became the basis for our work with the musicians who played on the album. It gave them a starting point to understand how we heard the more developed versions of the songs. We then sat down with guitarist Justin Hillman and pianist Zack Cross and worked out those arrangements with them. In the process, Justin and Zack added their own unique style, and together, we worked out parts that allowed each to shine and lock in gracefully with one another, while also fully supporting the songs and our voices. Once we had this established, we began working with drummer Conor Meehan and bassist Dan Fabricatore in much the same way. We played a few gigs with this ensemble and then went in to the studio to start recording, with D. James Goodwin and Eli Walker engineering.

As time went on, other players were brought into the mix for certain additional parts and Justin Hillman also helped us with a lot of the overdubbing and editing we did at home during the final phase of recording. We also worked with producers Thom Soriano, Jason Loughlin and Jemal Wade Hines during different phases of the project. And mixing engineer Oz Fritz and mastering engineer Garrett Haines brought it all together beautifully. Each of these artists helped to shape the overall sound of the album. In the end, though the two of us certainly had a strong vision for the album from the outset and were very much involved in making choices along the way, we were helped quite a lot by the amazing musicians, engineers and producers who worked with us.

How did you choose who to get involved with this album for contributions? Were these all musicians you already knew?

Most were musicians we already knew; a few, like Thom, Jason and Dan were musicians that Robert has known and worked with for many years. Dan and Robert had their first band together when they were in middle school and Thom and Robert started making music together in high school. Jason and Robert had a band together in college. Others are friends we’ve met and worked with in more recent years, especially here where we live in the Berkshires, where we are fortunate to be a part of a great community of supportive musicians and artists. It all happened very organically. The right people seemed to come along at the right moment.

You released “The Holy Moment” a month after First Flight was out. Was that just a stand-alone track for the season or will that be on a future release?

“The Holy Moment,” for the moment, at least, is a stand-alone track. Maybe, one day, we’ll be able to do a full-length holiday album, and we can include it. We’d love to do that, actually. We’ve been recording holiday songs at home for a few years now and sharing them just with friends and family. This year, we wanted to honor that little tradition of ours by writing and releasing a professionally produced tune and offer it to a wider audience. For this, we invited in percussionist Brian Adler, bassist Dan Fabricatore and engineer Justin Hillman, who also played mandolin, to help us create the backing tracks. We worked with engineer Godfrey Diamond (Lou Reed, Judy Collins), who recorded the bass and drums and mixed the song. Then, we made a little homespun music video to go with it. The idea with this tune was to try to convey something of the wonder and mystery of Christmastime.

So now that First Flight has been out for a bit, what are you working on now? Any big plans for 2014?

Now that the album is done and out, we are turning our attention to spreading the word about it and also to playing live as much as we can. We are looking to expand our reach beyond our home turf and do some touring. We really just want to get our music and this album out into the world as much as we can. We’re working now on scheduling lots of tour dates, including shows here in our region, as well as a number of shows that are much further afield. We’re so excited to get out there to meet and play for people and to see what new adventures and possibilities will come our way.

Brian Leak

Editor-In-Chief. King of forgetting drinks in the freezer. Pop culture pack rat. X-Phile. LOST apologist.
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